Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review of Escape from Camp 14

Escape from Camp 14:  One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk's harrowing life within a North Korean prison.  He is the only person known to have been born and raised in a North Korean prison camp to have escaped.  He was born in Camp 14 in 1982 and made his way to South Korea in 2006.  He moved to the U.S. in 2009 and lives in Washington, D.C. and Seoul.  Between 150,000 and 200,000 North Koreans work as slaves in its political prison camps.

Shin grew up in a prison camp because of the crime of a relative who fled to South Korea after the Korean War.  Shin's life inside the camp included seeing his mother as a competitor for food, being groomed by guards to snitch on anyone including and especially his family, and witnessing the execution of his mother and brother.

This is not only the story of Shin's experience in and escape from Camp 14 but is also a story of aftershocks--where does a physically and emotionally scarred individual who has endured real-life dystopian horrors go from there?  He explains, "I am evolving from being an animal, but it is going very, very slowly.  Sometime I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything.  Yet tears don't come.  Laughter doesn't come."

For a glimpse into the situation in North Korea from those living it, I also recommend Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick.  I haven't yet read but am interested in reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang:  Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Riguelot.  Escape from Camp 14 offers an often hard to take but important inside view of the country's human rights catastrophe.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fiona Apple's amazing new album

The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is Fiona Apple's fourth album and first in seven years.  It is a collaboration between Fiona and percussionist Charley Drayton; they coproduced it and played most of the instruments.  This is a raw and pared down album that is certainly a departure from her preceding album Extraordinary Machine.  It seems to have the most in common with her sophomore effort When the Pawn.  The instrumentation is largely piano and percussion.

There are some interesting sounds in some of the songs.  She explains about the song "Jonathan":  "On the first night of recording with Charley, we walked by this bottle-making factory.  The door was open and you could hear a machine running.  We both had our recorders with us and we agreed that the sound would be good for the song."  On "Anything We Want," she achieved a sound effect "with a pair of scissors, a tin full of burnt-cedar sashays, and a plastic cup.  I was hitting everything with scissors and the cedar was flying all over the place."  The song "Werewolf" includes a screaming sound that she was inspired to include after hearing a battle scene in a movie; she worked to find a duplication of it and finally found it in screams from a group of children at a school across from her house:  "They were jumping with balloons between their legs, trying to make them pop.  In the actual song, we had to take out all the balloon pops because they sounded like gunshots.  But it was so perfect."

There is not a weak song on the album--all are strong musically and lyrically.  In "Every Single Night," she sings, "Every single night's a fight/With my brain" and then later, "I just want to feel everything."  And from "Werewolf":  "We can still support each other/All we have to do's avoid each other/Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key."  "Hot Knife" is the closing track, blending her and her sister's voices (they stood at the same microphone):  "If I'm butter then he's a hot knife/He makes my life a CinemaScope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise."

My choral director in high school said that if an audience member described a performance as "ambitious," that meant that there was a high standard that was reached for and inevitably (and embarrassingly) not achieved.  This is one album that can be called ambitious and actually live up to it.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars